Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Marketing and the Christian Church

"A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing...'Cause only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line which is dotted."
- Blake (Glengarry Glen Ross)

There is a close relationship between "sales" and "marketing." Buying and selling are necessary in this life, and it didn't take long for the occupation of "salesman" to emerge. There are honest salesmen, of course, but the temptation to rack up sales figures at all costs is great - as brilliantly portrayed in the modern-day Greek tragedy Glengarry Glen Ross. In the movie adaptation of the David Mamet play, Alec Baldwin plays Blake, a hard-nosed "motivational speaker" who abuses the real estate salesmen in the office with profanity and threats - interspersed with quotes from Jesus and the Bible. He tells them that the most important thing in life is selling, closing the deal. Being a "closer" trumps all other things, such as being a nice guy or a good father.

When someone - be it an individual or company - wants to sell you something, packaging is important. We are more likely to buy something if the presentation is attractive, if the product's benefits can be explained to us. There is a whole science of deal-closing, of convincing someone to purchase something. It's called "marketing."

By way of example, a few weeks ago, I went shopping for a TV antenna - just a simple set of rabbit ears. So I go to Best Buy and pick one up off the shelf. There are lots of TV antennas on the market. So, RCA wants me to buy their rabbit ears instead of Toshiba's. RCA could make a better product for a lower price, tapping in to the economic law of supply and demand. Of course, they need to make sure their product is in a decent price range for its quality. But they can do something else. They can use packaging to "sell" me on the item. Maybe I need a little nudge to get off the fence, to make the conversion from browser to buyer. Maybe I need some convincing that RCA's version is better than the rest on the market.

I did become a buyer of an RCA TV antenna. Not because of the packaging (which I read later after getting it home), but because I don't have cable and I needed rabbit ears to replace the ones that didn't fit into the hole on the top of my TV and didn't work so well. I have a demand, the seller has a supply. So far, so good. The RCA antenna was reasonably-priced, and was just what I was looking for. Nevertheless, the marketing on the package was a hoot:

"For a high-quality indoor antenna, the choice is clear. The ANT103 was designed and manufactured to provide sharp reception, with silver dipoles and a UHF loop that tilts and rotates to receive TV and FM stereo signals. The ANT103 ensures high-quality video and audio reception, with outstanding features such as a 12-position fine tuning switch. The sleek, new contemporary design of the ANT103 complements any decor with its two-tone silver finish. For beauty, form and function, RCA brand indoor antennas can't be beat. Get the picture?" [Emphasis original]

Again, keep in mind, we're not talking about cutting edge technology here. These are rabbit ears - one step removed from a coat-hanger-and-duct-tape aerial. These are two metal poles that slide up out of a plastic base. It is no more high-tech and cutting edge than a number two pencil - and about the same when it comes to "beauty, form, and function." But consumers expect things that go with their TVs to be laden with gadgetry and electronic wizardry. They expect mysterious acronyms, technocratic jargon, emotive words, and glittering excitement. Even when it comes to something as low-tech and uninspiring as rabbit ears. "Get the picture?"

Of course, RCA is a big company. They didn't have one of the guys in the mail-room write the verbiage and slap it into a Word document in three or four minutes. No, this is pure marketing. Every word, every punctuation mark, every use of bold was carefully weighed, and probably tested in focus groups, for effectiveness. It probably went through several iterations and versions, was approved by a host of titled executives, and trotted out to volunteers who were then interviewed and quizzed and analyzed about how the pitch made them feel toward the product. Data was crunched, standard deviations were calculated. Conclusions were drawn.

Marketing is clever, corporate, and manipulative - although it is done under the radar - lest the unknowing consumer begin to realize he is being "played" - especially the consumer that prides himself on his independence, his desire for "authenticity" and his disdain for corporate manipulation. Like chameleons, the marketers promote their products as if no marketing were involved at all.

For more about how marketing works, check out this exposé.

Part of the goal of marketing is to make the whole process look spontaneous and "real" - when nothing could be further from the truth.

But "truth" is not the goal - "sales" are. Ultimately, marketing is dishonesty. For truth is embellished (at very least) in order to "get them to sign on the line which is dotted." Closing the deal is the goal, not a truthful exchange of information so the consumer can make an informed choice. Marketing is a science. Lurking behind the image of "cool" is actually a bevy of executives, psychologists, and statisticians with a methodology designed to create an artificial image and to drum up artificial demand. The average consumer just thinks he's buying something "cool." He has no idea he's been manipulated by a long and arduous process designed to work in the background.

I've been told of a book called All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World - and it has been highly recommended to me. The premise is that marketing is lying - but the good marketer must know just what he can get away with. There must be enough truth not to betray his lies, and the lies - in order to be ethical lies - must not cause anyone physical harm.

Of course, harm can be spiritual as well as physical.

In a day and age of many competing religious confessions, church leaders began to see the potential of marketing to draw people in to houses of worship. Certainly, bringing people to church to hear the Word of God is a laudable goal. Jesus commissioned the apostles to "make disciples of all nations" and proclaim the good news of salvation to every creature - which sounds to our fallen reason to be a classic case of sales and marketing. We have a commodity to "sell" (Jesus), we have potential consumers to "buy" (the world), and we have "competition" to undercut (marketing). Somehow, as the logic goes, we need to use marketing techniques to define ourselves, to increase market share and revenue, and to "sell" people on Jesus and our particular confession or denomination.

Hence we see churches engaging in all the typical sales and marketing gimmickry of the world: slogans, programs, brand identity and logos, talking points, balloons, large inflatable gorillas, slick ads, focus groups, promotions, and attractive packaging. There are mail-outs, launches, attempts to come across as spontaneously "cool," a drumbeat of peer pressure, attempts to "tap into the culture" and an appeal to numbers as evidence of "what works."

Of course, Jesus never speaks of marketing. In fact, Jesus is the market executive's worst nightmare. He tells us to take up our cross. He tells us to die to self. He tells us the Christian life is a life of self-denial, not consumption. He tells us we are helpless and must come before God as beggars (rather than consumers armed with MasterCard and a thousand choices). In Holy Scripture, preachers are not compared to Fuller Brush Salesmen, and the Gospel is not described as a multi-level Amway product. Rather the preacher is compared to a sower, and the Word of God to a humble seed. We're not talking about agri-business either. The preacher is a pretty bad farmer in terms of resource allocation and marketing strategy. The preacher (that is, the sower of the seeds) has no marketing strategy whatsoever. He tosses seeds everywhere: the street, the sidewalk, the thorny ground, the sunny ground, the soil that looks promising, and the soil that looks hopeless. He is not to rely on focus groups and statistical studies, but rather on the Holy Spirit.

There is no more anti-corporate model than that of our Lord's vision of church growth.

And yet, hapless church officials continue to recommend that pastors read all sorts of business best-sellers and the latest offerings by the sales and marketing gurus to shape their ministries and approach to Christian outreach. They seem to put more faith in Peter Drucker than in the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

In the 1980s, we were swamped with a slew of books under the loose heading of the "Church Growth Movement" (CGM). Everyone, it seemed, was jumping on the bandwagon. After a lot of marketing research, the "gurus" told us that young people didn't want liturgy, so we began experimenting with more free forms. The "experts" told us traditional hymnody was a turn-off, so we filled our sanctuaries with drums and guitars. The Masters of the CGM told us that sermons about sin and redemption, law and gospel, justification and sanctification were no longer "relevant" - so our preachers began entertaining us with folksy stories and edgy humor. The consultants also told us that we needed to embrace technology - so we spent thousands of dollars on sound systems, big screens, software, more consultants, and redecorating of our sanctuaries.

The result was the megachurch. A "success" in the eyes of the marketers and CGM experts, but a failure when looked at according to Scripture. For in seeking the false god of Prosperity, the doctrine was watered down as to be indistinguishable from anyone else's. In order to keep the customer coming back, we need to give him what he wants - and that means no talk of sin, the cross, the total reliance of the Christian on the charity and grace of God. It means telling folks what they want to hear. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of "name it and claim it" hucksters and "prosperity gospel" false prophets come straight out of the megachurch. Our churches came to resemble mini Disney Worlds - complete with shows, concerts, drama, comedy, emotive music, and canned presentations.

Of course, the appeal of this paradigm has worn thin. Younger people see the phoniness of this big, plastic church. They seek something more "authentic."

But the marketers were already on their trail, sniffing around to figure out what the next fad should be. They know that the paradigm is shifting, that to capture the valuable youth demographic, the product must be marketed to appeal to Gen-X, Gen-Y, and beyond, and away from the model that worked for Baby Boomers. The surveys and research point to the fact that the younger crowd is somewhat in rebellion against the phony megachurch model, the preacher in khakis and golf shirts, the elegantly-designed sets and stages, and the ubiquitous cheesy adult-contemporary crooning. The younger demographic is looking for something grittier, less "yuppie" and suburban-looking - perhaps a pastor with a soup-catcher beard and a few piercings, a "worship space" that looks less corporate, less Starbuck's and a more "Indie" and dark. The music needs to be less "happy-clappy" and more "edgy." Anything to avoid the "corporate" look. And so, corporations are brought in to foster this anti-corporate look and environment.

This is what is known as the Emerging Church movement. Instead of looking like a shopping mall, the emerging church more closely resembles (and may actually be) a coffee shop. Instead of slickly-produced music, it may be less polished and more "raw." Instead of going for the cutesy sermon, the preacher may opt for more "street." The idea is to jettison the plasticity of the modern "worship center" and replace it with a more postmodern "worship experience" that seeks to blend traditional forms without being bound to tradition. Hence, the "emerging" worship style might use ancient icons transmitted on a plasma TV screen and employ Gregorian chant combined with grunge rock. It defies dogmatic theology in exchange for a subjective spirituality.

The emerging church seeks communion with the traditional church, while at the same time avoiding the responsibilities and obligations of traditional Christianity. It seeks an orthodoxy that is flexible. Of course, this is at odds with historic communions such as dogmatic Roman Catholicism, change-resistant Eastern Orthodoxy, tradition-bound continuing Anglicanism, and traditionalist confessional Lutheranism. The doctrine and practice of historic Christianity is rooted in the confession of absolute truth. The emerging church wants the stability and "authenticity" of a traditional church, but without imposing the strictures of truth on its members.

Lutheran Christianity is a historic expression of Western Catholicism. Traditional Lutheran doctrine and practice is a reversion to ancient Roman Catholicism. Lutheranism is, according to its normative documents in the 1580 Book of Concord, dogmatic and scriptural in its theology and liturgical and scriptural in its worship practice. The Lutheran tradition is antithetical with wishy-washy doctrines and new age worship styles.

Lutheranism is rooted in Christ through the Word of God and the sacraments. According to Lutheranism, one becomes a Christian apart from one's will (hence we don't make a "decision for Christ"), through the sacrament of Holy Baptism (which is not a mere symbol in our theology), and is carried out in fellowship within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church through the ministrations of the pastoral office, the bishop/priest of traditional western theology as articulated in the Bible. It is through the pastor that the Lord works forgiveness and gives His gifts. This is an alien, even repugnant, theology to virtually all of Protestantism.

This explains the great incongruity between Protestant fads - such as the Church Growth Movement, Megachurches, and now the Emerging Church - and the theology confessed by Lutherans. Unlike a non-denominational church, a Lutheran pastor can't simply purchase a one-size-fits-all kit, show a few boilerplate videos, play a few generic Protestant praise songs, and wait for the market forces to do their work. For Lutherans (and other traditions within the historic Church), living out the Christian faith and life simply can't be done apart from the sacraments, from preaching, and from traditional worship forms. Attempts to do so always result in a doctrine and practice that are at odds with the Book of Concord - to which all Lutheran pastors and congregations are bound.

Here is an example (Sanctuary1010) of one such attempt to combine the Emerging Church fad with the venerable evangelical catholic (Lutheran) tradition. On Sanctuary1010's website you see all the cookie-cutter elements of other "emerging" examples. It has all the key nomenclature as identified by the professional religion industry's corporate strategists and gurus. A cursory look around the internet, and you'll see the same thing - only with different names. Without knowing that this is a creation of corporate America, you might begin to believe that this is something unique and "edgy" instead of being simply an ecclesiastical version of McDonald's.

Aside from the canned marketing element of "sanctuary1010" - that meets in a theater and tries hard to look "hip," take a look at the theology. You'll find a lot of God-talk, vague gibberish about "spirituality," and some Orpah-esque talk about community. Under "looking for answers" you will get an unintended, and yet somehow fitting "coming soon." Under "what do we believe?" you will find precious little. A couple verses from Scripture are cited and paraphrased in a very Protestant, perhaps even Gnostic, manner. Jesus goes unmentioned until you drill down into "the solution." Here it is..

God saw the problem we were in and loved us so much He did something about it: He sent His only Son, Jesus, to earth for us.
- (John 3:16)

Jesus is the only one who could make things right between us and God because He is the only one who is both God and man.
- (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Colossians 2:8-9)

Jesus gave His life as the perfect sacrifice for our sins and restores our relationship with God.
- (Isaiah 53:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

All of this is true, of course, but terribly incomplete. This is not "the solution" one would find in a Lutheran church - a vague, almost ethereal reference to Jesus being a sacrifice. Lutheran theology is rooted in baptism. We Lutherans cannot talk about salvation without speaking of Holy Baptism - and yet the word baptism is not even uttered on this site! Nor is Holy Absolution. Nor is Holy Communion. These very things are "the solution" - and yet they go unmentioned! That's because this supposedly "edgy" way of "doing church" is a corporate clone with non-denominational roots, a McChurch designed around a series of focus group studies, a turn-key business model aped from a theology that is not within our Lutheran tradition. They all look and sound the same regardless of denomination or confession - because they are market-driven, not truth-driven.

Marketing is institutionalized dishonesty designed to sell everything from cars to laundry soap, from pocket fishermen to light beer. Church Marketing is even worse. It's a fraud that custom-makes a pop-religion around the consumer, that denies the power of the Holy Spirit, that flies in the face of ancient confessed truths that point to the One Absolute Truth in the flesh, who comes to us in His chosen means - whether the world has been trained like Pavlov's dogs to find such truth hip or not.

The Christian Church must avoid the "Always Be Closing" mentality. Church executives should not be like Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross, whipping the pastors up into an emotional frenzy to go out there and make sales. Faithfulness to the family of God's people and to the doctrine and practice of the Holy Church must never play second fiddle to "closing" and racking up a tote- board of "critical events" rooted in sales seminars and pitches. What works for fast food restaurants and telemarketing firms will not work for the Church Catholic - with or without numbers that can be used to declare "success."

St. Paul, not Blake, speaks for the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church: "For we are not, like so many, peddlers (kapeleuontes) of God's Word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God in the sight of God we speak in Christ." 2 Cor 2:17 ESV

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